How could digital tech reduce food waste and bring people together over fresh, good value communal meals?
Two things drove Stefan to become a chef: a love of ingredients, and a passion for bringing people together over a meal. His priorities have changed a lot since his first full-time job in 2021. Then, working in high end restaurants, the freshest, most expensive, rarest ingredients from across the world were available every morning. Everything looked and tasted perfect. But Stefan was horrified by the waste this generated, and saw that this approach was socially unjust as well as environmentally irresponsible.
Taking over the running of the Community Restaurant has allowed him to become a different type of chef. The restaurant opens four nights a week to provide nutritious meals for anyone in the community. It operates on a pay-as-you-like approach, attracting all sorts of people who usually might not interact. For single people living alone, the restaurant provides conviviality; for busy families it’s a rest from shopping and cooking; for time poor office workers it’s convenient and much tastier than a supermarket alternative; and for less well-off people, it’s a chance for a decent cooked meal that they might not be able to make at home. Everyone sits at communal tables, reducing loneliness and creating community ties.
He has two main sources of produce. The first are local growers. Some are commercial, like the fresh salad grown in open-source hydroponic planters on the rooftops of blocks of flats. Because these spaces are difficult to access, the growing is almost autonomous. Linked sensors monitor and adjust moisture, temperature and light and nutrient levels in the machines automatically. The only labour required is the harvest. Other local produce comes from volunteers, like the annual apple picking days in community orchards and people’s back garden. Some produce also comes from individuals with allotments or indoor growing machines.
The second main source is waste food that farmers can’t sell. Increasing food prices and environmental awareness have made consumers less wary of wonky fruit and vegetables, but the commercial food system continues to be based on excess. Even with the most advanced agricultural technology, farmers still end up with occasional gluts. This means many farmers find themselves with produce they’re unable to sell to supermarkets or wholesalers.
To get his hands on produce, whether locally-produced or commercial, he scans Eto Eto, an open-source platform set up by environmental activists. The platform is best-known for providing infrastructure, knowledge and tips for urban growing, but has recently launched a new function for matching food surplus and need. Eto Eto lists food offers available in the region near the user, allows chefs to choose the ingredients they want, and calculates the most efficient mechanism for delivery. They have electric vans criss-crossing the area and an army of fairly-paid delivery cyclists,, or buyers can pick up the produce themselves.
For Stefan, it’s a great system. His meals are made largely of local, seasonal ingredients, they’re cheaper, and they’re fresher. The creative challenge is good fun too, and he’s devised original ways to deal with seasonal gluts of produce like the mountain of apples he knows he’ll be getting every autumn.
When he’s ordered his produce, Stefan estimates the number of meals he’ll be able to provide and puts this figure onto the community restaurant platform. Some places are reserved, for instance for elderly or vulnerable people, and other places are open to book. Diners check in with their own app to say they’ll be coming and to make their donation for the meal. They also check where the itinerant restaurant will be opening that evening.
Rather than having a base of its own, the restaurant moves from space to space depending on what’s available. The city government lists vacant spaces on its own platform so they can be used by the community - sometimes a local school, sometimes the community centre, one of the local parks in summer. Businesses list their spaces too, and they’ve dined everywhere from the top of skyscrapers to the vaults of an ancient castle.
When dinner is served, Stefan surveys the scene with delight. There’s always a buzz in the room, as new friendships are formed and old ones strengthened. The food isn’t as glamorous as the high class dining that started his career, but it’s certainly more inclusive and environmentally friendly. And even though the space is full, Stefan is also excited today to be able to send every diner home with an extra portion of apple crumble.